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Standalone Smartphone Apps for Mental Health: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis


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In a recently published journal article, researchers Kiona K. Weisel, Lukas M. Fuhrmann, Matthias Berking, Harald Baumeister, Pim Cuijpers, and David D. Ebert conducted a meta-analysis to evaluate the efficacy of smartphone apps for mental health as stand-alone interventions for mental health issues.

They begin their paper by outlining how the market for smartphone apps to treat mental health issues is growing rapidly, while the “evidence of standalone apps for treating mental health symptoms is still unclear.” They conducted a comprehensive literature search in February 2018, looking at published, randomized controlled trials. More specifically, they considered articles that reviewed the effects of standalone apps used by adults with heightened symptom severity and which had a control group.

Design: Their design was a random-effects model. In sum, 5945 records were identified and 165 full-text articles were examined by two independent researchers. The researchers ultimately chose to include 19 trials with 3681 participants. The mental health apps chosen for inclusion claimed to address the following mental health disorders: depression, anxiety, substance use, self-injurious thoughts and behaviors, PTSD, and sleep problems.

Results: Positive effects were found for effects on depression and on smoking behavior. No significant pooled effects were found for anxiety, suicidal ideation, self-injury, or alcohol use. Effect sizes for single trials ranged from g = −0.05 to 0.14 for PTSD and g = 0.72 to 0.84 for insomnia.

Conclusion: In the words of the researchers, “Although some trials showed the potential of apps targeting mental health symptoms, using smartphone apps for mental health as standalone psychological interventions cannot be recommended based on the current level of evidence.”

Where does that leave you if your client or patient insists that an app is helping them? Please leave your comments in the discussion area below.

Reference: Weisel, K. K., Fuhrmann, L. M., Berking, M., Baumeister, H., Cuijpers, P., & Ebert, D. D. (2019). Standalone smartphone apps for mental health—a systematic review and meta-analysis. npj Digital Medicine, 2(1), 1-10.

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karen marshall
karen marshall
2 years ago

Placebo effect can be good at times. Maybe the only advantage of a client thinking an app helps them is that it reminds them to pay attention to the issue they struggle with and be aware of the solutions that they actually learned in therapy.

Carly McCord
Carly McCord
3 years ago

Thanks for sharing this important work. Implicit in your discussion question is actually support for these findings.”Where does that leave you if your client or patient insists that an app is helping them?” The researchers show that using apps without the help of a clinician has limitations. I say if you are working with a patient or client that finds an app helpful then use it as a strength and a resource! But do it in combination with the expertise of the clinician and other evidence based tools.

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